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Returning to a Home on the Range

A long-term study determined that Catalina could sustain about 150 buffalo. For a few years, the conservancy shipped small numbers of the animals to auction, where some ended up in breeding programs and others in slaughterhouses.

Last year, the group was approached by the animal rights organization In Defense of Animals, which suggested sending some to the Plains. A first group of about 100 was shipped last fall, with no ceremony, to several Lakota reservations in South Dakota.

One hundred buffalo are being moved from Santa Catalina Island to thin the herd and to replenish the population in their native Great Plains. (Ric Francis -- AP)

Heartened by the success of the first transfer, Catalina decided to ship another group this year, bringing the island's herd to a sustainable 150. Under the agreement, Muscat said, the shipped-out 100 will be in a breeding program and will live out their natural lives.

"They will rejoin a people for whom the bison for centuries have been an important part of culture and life," she said at the ceremony. "This is good for the land, good for the plants and animals that share this land, good for our collective soul."

As a ceremony filled with joyful native dances and somber prayers came to its close, the barge remained empty. An official took the stage to explain that the buffalo were still on their way -- some unanticipated delay -- and asked the Native American drummers to fill the time with more music.

It would be several more minutes before the convoy of flashing police cars and two long double trailers would appear from around the bend where the base of a cliff met the sea.

"They're coming!" yelled a barge hand.

Castillo began a song of prayer as the trucks pulled up, and as he keened, a loud knocking came from inside one of the trailers. A horn poked out from one of the air holes; a baleful eye glanced out of another.

Suddenly a question occurred: Did anyone ask the bison about this?

For on Catalina, the sky was a cloudless blue, and pelicans were swooping into the azure waters. A cruise ship hovered just off the coast and a parasailer floated by. Mainland California was just an ambiguous smudge on the horizon, and it was a perfect 75 degrees.

When the bison arrive on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation on Thursday evening, the temperature is expected to start to dip below freezing.

Muscat anticipated the question. The bison who went last year "have done very well," she said. They put on an average of 100 pounds each -- a good thing -- and mixed well with the others, had calves and grew thicker coats to withstand the cold of their native land.

"They had thousands of years to evolve to that," she said. "Eighty years doesn't make that much of a difference."

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